Welcome to the Smart Life
In the wake of smartphones, the "smart" prefix if cropping up on everything -- smart home, smart cars, smart boards in school. But as every aspect of our lifestyle is getting more connected, we wonder: is that really a smart thing?
Consider a random day in the future, where you keep your windows closed because crooks may be lurking -- not to steal your jewelry, but to nab your digital data. Well, maybe not yours in particular, since you installed Wi-Fi blocking wallpaper to keep hackers at bay.
You wake up in the morning and it is chilly, so you crank up the heat from the comfort of your bed using your smartphone. When you stumble to the bathroom to brush your teeth, the toothbrush's sensor detects you are ovulating. It also lets you know your child hasn't brushed their teeth yet -- time for a friendly reminder.
The toothbrush sensor passes along your biological information to your smart-car, which suggests a stop at your favorite donut shop on the way to work since your blood sugar levels are low. Since Google is driving the car for you, you eat the donut while reading personalized, curated news on your mobile device, noting the ads for children's mouth rinses for kids that forget to brush. You click to add the item to your smart shopping list.
That night, in the bathroom before heading to bed, you take a long look at your freshly scrubbed face. The sensors embedded in the mirror note your general good mood while others click away: roots showing, schedule a hair appointment; wrinkles around eyes deepening, send off a prescription to a nearby pharmacy kiosk. The hidden smart sensors also message your Google car to put that on schedule for the next morning commute.
Sounds great, doesn't it? But the connected life will have its costs, even as smart technology begins to flood the home.
The Smart Life Begins at Home
The U.S. is driving strong global demand for home automation this year, and is expected to exceed the 800,000 home automation system activations in 2011, according to Strategy Analytics estimates. The numbers will continue to climb -- a market study from ABI Research last month predicts more than eight million home automation systems will ship by 2017.
Home automation gaining steam, as "a combination of home connectivity, standardization, and a range of new sensors and devices bring an ever expanding number of players into the market," said Jonathan Collins, principal analyst at ABI Research. Existing players are tailoring their offerings to create connected options in areas like home energy management, connected appliances, home security management, home healthcare, entertainment, and lighting control. Also, new technology is turning everyday objects into touch devices, bringing the smart home closer to everyone in 2013.
Who Are the Players?
Many companies are eying the smart home trend, and future features and systems have the potential to transform the American home.
Cable companies: Comcast launched a test run in Maryland this year for its "Xfinity Home" package, starting at $40 a month after a $200 installation fee. The package offers a residential alarm system, video monitoring and temperature controls, plus users can plug items like coffee pots or lamps into a wireless adapter that enables remote control from a touchpad, mobile device or computer.
Comcast, like other cable companies, has an established relationship with millions of customers and is able to offer these connected home options at a price close to $50, instead of the thousands of dollars it would have cost in the past, making the futuristic smart home idea more accessible to everyday people.
Wireless carriers: Late this year Verizon announced it will team up with Lowes to bring a USB modem connection to the home improvement giant's Iris smart home system. The kits start at $180 and let you control thermostats or appliances from your smartphone. AT&T launched its connected home trial in two U.S. markets this year, testing home monitoring and automation devices that homeowners can access from a browser, smartphone or tablet.
Home security providers: Companies like ADT aim to expand their customer base of about 20 percent of U.S. homeowners who use their services. Their innovations accessorize highly intelligent houses with automated lights, home entertainment systems, and refrigerators -- all high-end functions that will need some high-tech security.
How Google Will Change the Way You Drive
Hands off, California -- lawmakers in the state just paved the way for driverless cars to hit the highways. In February, Google CEO Eric Schmidt presented a vision of the world where technology and information are power and the modern marvels of the digital world are commonplace. A little more than six months later, developments in Google's autonomous car initiative are driving home this reality.
California joined Nevada to become the second state enacting legislation covering autonomous cars, and other states, such as Arizona, Hawaii, Florida and Oklahoma are reportedly considering similar measures. The growing number of gadgets in everyday life, emerging applications in the auto industry and the backing of tech heavy-hitters like Google are pushing the trend. This may have implications far beyond how we get to work, promising to change the physical landscape of our communities.
Laws Get Behind the Push
Last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed the law, SB 1298, obliging the Golden State's Department of Motor Vehicles to draft regulations for autonomous vehicles by January 1, 2015 at a ceremony held at Google's Mountain View, Calif.-based headquarters.
The bill is more a symbolic gesture since California law doesn't actually require a car to have a driver: when the state passed its first motor laws in the early 20th century, autonomous autos weren't even a glimmer in a legislator's eye. Still, the official sanctioning makes it clear to pedestrians, fellow-drivers and law enforcement alike that the odd-looking cars have the state's full backing.
Google has already developed a fleet of a dozen cars, mostly Toyota Priuses modified with a combination of sensors, radar and computer navigation, and has already logged more than 300,000 miles of autonomous driving on state roads. Google has tested its vehicles on California roads since 2010, and on one trip a Google car drove from San Francisco to Santa Monica along the twisty Pacific Coast Highway without anyone at the wheel and nary a hiccup. Google's driverless cars have now logged more hours without accidents than the average U.S. driver.
"These vehicles have the potential to avoid accidents -- we can save lives, create jobs, and reduce congestion," said Google co-founder Sergey Brin at the event. "Self-driving cars can transform lives and communities -- providing transportation to those not currently served, increasing safety on the road, reducing or eliminating congestion, and turning parking into parkland."
The California bill underscores how the search giant is using its considerable wealth and contacts to expand use of their autonomous cars, promoting their safety record at a time when an uptick in distracted driving uptick plagues the country.
Changing the way America Will Look?
For a country that expanded in large part around the freedom of the automobile and the promise of black ribbons of roadway, messing with the lifeblood of our nation's transportation is a tricky prospect. People decry the very notion of substituting drivers for automated systems, thinking the obstacles to getting to such a place are too overwhelming and costly to seriously consider. Still others maintain much greater testing is required to ensure safety of such a large-scale proposition.
Still, as the timeline for autonomous cars creeps closer and future iterations hit showroom floors, one thing is for sure: driverless cars won't be alone in tearing up the highway into the future.
According to predictions released by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, IEEE, autonomous cars will account for up to 75 percent of vehicles on the road by the year 2040, sparking debate over innovation in the auto industry, public infrastructure, and societal attitudes.
So Long, Red Lights!
The IEEE envisions the driverless transformation will sweep in the removal of traffic signs, speed limits and lights since highly evolved, self-driving cars won't need them. Hate your driver's license photo? Well, that won't be a problem, since the organization predicts they won't be needed in fully autonomous cars because this transport is much like buses and trains, and nobody uses a license to use them.
No New Infrastructure
Many assume the transformation to a driverless system will need all sorts of sensors and special infrastructure, but that may not be the case, according to Dr. Alberto Broggi, IEEE senior member and professor of computer engineering at the University of Parma in Italy. Broggi served as director of a 2010 project that successfully piloted two driverless cars on an 8,000-mile road trip from Parma to Shanghai and points out that two current types of self-driving cars will need less infrastructure, not more.
"The Google cars are based on very precise maps and they have sensing primarily based on a LIDAR technology," he told Wired. "The cars that we tested on the route from Parma to Shanghai had no maps, and had sensing primarily based on cameras. In both cases, the cars have no help from the infrastructure."
Communication is Key
Broggi expects infrastructure in the form of centralized communication will be critical, once large numbers of fully autonomous cars are on the road. In the absence of traffic lights, crossing signs and speed limits, the need to communicate information between vehicles and in response to external cues will be key.
"Autonomous cars alone will bring limited benefits," he says. "They would be able to locate obstacles, avoid them and follow the road. But efficient autonomous operations would also require that vehicles coordinate with each other."
A nascent form of vehicle-to-vehicle communication, V2V, is being tested in a National Highway and Transportation Security Administration field trial, allowing cars to share situational data to avoid crashing into each other.
Auto Industry Off and Running
The necessity for driverless cars to talk with other is creating opportunities in the auto industry.
GM's Cadillac division expects to produce partly autonomous cars on a large scale by 2015, and the automaker also predicts it will have fully autonomous cars available by the end of the decade. And, Audi is partnering with Stanford to pilot self-driving car concepts.
Meanwhile, Volvo is testing the concept of using "road trains" in Europe to allow for more efficient driving. Teams are studying how trains move near each other much like they expect automated cars will, and in doing so generate aerodynamic drift, which can increase the number of cars per road unit and reduce fuel consumption.
Vehicle-to-infrastructure, V2I communication would also allow vehicles to share their place, destination and intended route with a central station to coordinate and dispatch information about traffic and route vehicles.
"Suppose all cars are connected and a central station knows precisely their position and destination," Broggi explains. "The central station can send speed adjustment commands to the vehicles that enter an intersection in such a way that they do not collide and they occupy the intersection area one at a time, optimizing their movements."
Taking Baby Steps to the Future
Benefits like increased fuel efficiency, safety and a reduction in headache-inducing traffic jams are certainly propelling the idea of driverless cars forward, but public adoption of the concept could be slow for many reasons. Among the many obstacles, public acceptance may prove the biggest barrier to its widespread adoption.
Jeffrey Miller, IEEE member and associate professor of computer systems engineering at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, believes that baby steps in the form of driver assist systems already out there, like the now seemingly antiquated cruise control, and those coming in the near future may help.
"As more vehicular controls begin being automated, such as parallel parking and automatic braking, people will become more accepting of autonomous technologies," Miller told Wired.
Touch innovations, fueled by haptic technology, are also bringing a sense of texture to automobiles that could grease the wheels for more advanced technologies down the road.
Promising research from AT&T Research Labs and Carnegie Mellon University incorporates haptic feedback into the steering wheel itself, alerting drivers to potential road hazards and helping them chart their courses by sending vibrations through the steering column. According to AT&T researching Kevin Li, the vibrations help drivers instinctively sense which way to turn to avoid a collision by prompting a response in the brain known as a "human perception trick."
Similarly, Tactus Technology developed a prototype for use in cars that lets users choose when they want to use a regular touchscreen and when they want to actually feel physical buttons, which inflate and deflate on command.
As technology companies integrate their latest tools into automobile designs, they will continue to educate and bring along consumers who may be initially wary. As these innovations gain public confidence, the iterative process will refine the offerings with consumer feedback and also smooth the transition to future innovations, making it possible that by 2040, driverless vehicles could be widely accepted and possibly be the dominant vehicles on the road.
Apple: Meanwhile, over at Apple, the shake-up resulting from Scott Forstall's departure offers an insight into Apple's possible smart home inclinations. The fall-out includes the announcement of a "Technologies" division. This intriguing-sounding unit combines all of Apple's wireless teams across the company in one organization, prompting many to conclude more smart products are on the horizon.
The emergence of the smart home could raise the status of former top Apple executive Tony Fadell, who once worked for Philips, which recently introduced the Hue IP-controllable LED light bulbs that are available at Apple stores. Consumers can raise or lower these bulb's brightness, and change their colors, at the flick of a switch using a connected device, such as an iPad or iPhone. Fadell, credited with inventing the iPod, is now the CEO of Nest, which makes an intelligent learning thermostat designed to replace traditional thermostats. The technology can learn to create your optimal environment, and manage it to maximize energy consumption remotely via your iPhone.
In addition to these emerging tools, Apple's Siri talking assistant could also take a larger role as a way to issue commands to connected home systems.
Retailers: Home goods retailers like Lowes are partnering with Google to develop smart home systems to make appliances and devices work better. These smart home technologies can incorporate Wi-Fi into the way appliances like dishwashers, TVs and stoves operate, making secure network connections even more crucial to domestic life.
Utilities/Conservation Interests: In addition to securely controlling energy use in the house, a smart home system can also help cut excess use by monitoring the network's efficiency, highlighted in Honda's Smart Home System -- consisting of thin-film solar cell panels, a rechargeable home battery unit, gas and hot water supply systems and e-manager to keep track of all the other components -- which will reduce CO2 emissions and monitor the power grid.
In the U.K., AlertMe, a smart technology company, secured a contract to offer a smart meters to about 10,000 British Gas customers. British Gas, the U.K.'s largest supplier of domestic energy, serves 10 million homes and around 16 million energy accounts.
What are the Pitfalls?
The price you pay for this all this convenience is surrendering information about your everyday activities, and with the advent of Big Data, the results can be chilling. For example, earlier this year Target's Guest Relations Analytics accidentally revealed a teenager's pregnancy to her father. The store's data collectors used information about her purchasing habits to predict her pregnancy -- even though she did not explicitly reveal the information to Target (or to her father) -- and sent her a pamphlet about upcoming parenthood that shocked her parents.
All this connectivity also poses other privacy concerns, far beyond the sharing of your private information. This fall, former CIA Director David Petraeus admitted the government could, and likely would, spy on citizens through their appliances, as "smart home" devices become a market reality.
While discussing an "Internet of things," Petraeus said household devices with online connectivity will change the notion of secrecy, indicating the rise of these devices will create a fresh wave of privacy concern.
Since the smart home system would be controlled by a universal device, the influx of connected devices raises the likelihood that stored information could be prone to search by law enforcement.
In addition to securing the home's Wi-Fi connection, other technologies like near-field communications, or NFC, which allow the "Internet of things" to talk to each other, would need to be secure from hacking to reassure consumers. Also, the emphasis on a smart grid to conserve overall energy use is causing problems, too.
In California, utility providers hooked up "smart meters" to give hourly reports on home electricity use back to the company to monitor use. But thousands of complaints about the long-term health effects from the system's radio frequencies rolled in, even though regulators and health experts said risk was minimal.
Questions still shroud the smart home concept, but nobody is really debating the idea that the revolution is coming soon to a neighborhood near you. Inventors and engineers will continue to imagine new ways modern technology can transform everyday activities, and consumers' endless hunger isn't likely to fade.
Still, securing the technology to ensure people's privacy, educating them about how it works and being transparent about any potential health issues will be important for widespread adoption. A connected home with is convenience and conservation is appealing; a monitored home with unknown health risks and data insecurity... well, not so much.
Agree or disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts. Share your experience and leave a comment below. ♦
Categories: The Year Ahead